The country of Myanmar provides a good example of my view that the true nature of a religion becomes visible when that religious group is in the majority and enjoys state support. Myanmar is a country that is almost 90% Buddhist but in the southern part of the country that borders Muslim-majority Malaysia, Muslims are in the majority. So what do we see? We see Muslims in the southern part attacking Buddhists and Buddhists in the northern part attacking Muslims.
Michael Jerryson, a professor of religious studies at Youngstown State University, looks at the violent campaigns that have been conducted by Buddhist monks against members of other religious groups in Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, countries in which they are the majority. He says that Buddhists can be as violent as members of any other religion and explains why its image in the west is so different from the reality, saying that “In the West, Buddhism is more an accoutrement to one’s way of life than a full-bodied religion.”
The recent Buddhist-inspired violence in places such as southern Thailand shocked many. When I lecture on these events, people often ask if these are ‘truly’ Buddhists. After all, violence does not fit into the popular narrative of Buddhism being wholly peaceful. But they are indeed ‘true’ Buddhists, and many are monks. The problem is that the ‘peaceful Buddhist’ narrative is erroneous. It prevents us from understanding the causes of violence. Buddhists, after all, have an agency that goes beyond Hollywood stereotypes of mystical monks, Himalayan mountaintops and Shangri-La.
These popular narratives of passivity and victimhood in Western culture are blind to the diversity in Buddhism and its long history of violence.
Recently, Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka have also called for violence. In 2013, Time magazine placed the Burmese Buddhist monk U Wirathu on their cover with the headline ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’. U Wirathu has been a fiery critic of Burmese Muslims, particularly those who identify as Rohingya. The 2014 Myanmar census found that Buddhists make up 89 per cent of the population, compared with Muslims at 4.3 per cent. Nevertheless, U Wirathu and his counterparts argue that both Burmese Buddhism and Myanmar itself are threatened by the ‘Islamification of Asia’.
From 1983, Sri Lanka was engaged in a civil war. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought to separate and form their own independent state of Tamil Eelam. The Sri Lankan government opposed this, both through secular language and Buddhist rhetoric. Buddhist monks fiercely argued against negotiations, and for fighting to keep Sri Lanka ‘whole’. For these monks, Sri Lanka is the true land of Buddhism and it was under attack. Monks were straightforward political players, delivering incendiary speeches, joining political parties (such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna), and taking part in violent clashes.
The civil war ended in 2009, but Sri Lankan Buddhist monks have continued to push their political agendas. Since 2011, there have been further escalations in violent rhetoric by Sri Lankan Buddhist nationalist organisations such as the Sinhala Ravaya (The Roar of the Sinhalese), the Ravana Balaya (Ravana’s Force) and the Bodu Bala Sena (The Army of Buddhist Power).
Similar to their counterparts in Myanmar, these Sri Lankan Buddhist groups have incited anti-Muslim riots, as in Aluthgama in 2014. Buddhist groups have been implicated in the assassination of politicians and peace activists. The growing influence of these hyper-nationalist Buddhist organisations, together with the Sri Lankan government’s tacit support (through a lack of response) has spurred NGOs and local communities to protest.
Jerryson looks at what in Buddhist beliefs drives this violence. I was surprised to learn from his essay that Buddhism also has a belief in the ‘End Times’, similar to that in Christianity.
In order to comprehend such people’s justifications for violence, it is important to explore their worldview, namely, the way in which Buddhists understand and protect what is sacred to them. Although Buddhism is incredibly diverse, all Buddhists venerate the Triple Jewels: Buddha, Dharma (doctrine) and Sangha (monastic community). As long as these jewels remain in the world, humanity still has a way of escaping the vicious cycle of rebirth. Buddhists, along with Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, believe that time is cyclical, and that there is a decline before the end of each great cycle.
According to Buddhists, their doctrine provides rulers with justice, societies with equilibrium, and individuals with a path to salvation. Its attenuation, therefore, is one sign of the decline. Another is the absence, or dwindling numbers, of the sangha. When there are no more monks, Buddhist End Times will begin.
As humanity moves closer to the Buddhist End Times, the Buddhist doctrine explains that it will become harder for a person to become enlightened. In recent years, many Buddhists have turned to Pure Land Buddhism. These Buddhists believe that our world is now fraught with a multitude of obstacles to becoming fully awakened. To avoid this, a follower practices uttering Amitabh’s name (nianfo) and visualizing him. In this way, the follower ensures a rebirth in Pure Land, where he can receive the teachings from the Bodhisattva Amitabha to reach enlightenment. Pure Land Buddhism is one of the largest populated traditions in East Asia, and is quickly expanding its numbers globally. While some Buddhists turn to traditions such as Pure Land Buddhism, others fight to preserve what they believe is true Buddhism, such as in southern Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Over the centuries, there have been tremendous changes to Buddhism. Indeed, change is one of the foundational principles in Buddhism: all is impermanent. Some changes are in concert with modernity, others are in reaction. Each Buddhist tradition has transformed with the times – and the times are always changing. But there are persistent patterns that keep pace with these changes. Buddhist monks in the early sixth-century China led revolts to defend Buddhism. Today, monks in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka continue to fight – violently – for their religion and to call their followers to action. The cycle of violence continues in this final stage of the cycle of time: the Kali Yuga, the Age of Destruction.
He correctly says that, “No religion has a monopoly on ‘violent people’, nor does any one religion have a greater propensity for violence. Rather, social conditions such as poverty and societal upheavals generate violent behaviour, regardless of religion.” But the point is that the reason why religions are a menace is because it seems to be so easy to drive people to violence based on religious beliefs because they can actually feel virtuous while committing awful acts. And the easiest way to rouse them is to suggest that the end of the world is nigh or that their religion is being threatened with extinction by other religions, however implausible that claim might seem on any rational basis.